Disclaimer: Anything recognizable belongs to Janet Evanovich, and the rest is mine. I'm grateful she lets us play.

Warning: Dark fic. Adult language, adult content, violence, smut. This is written for mature audiences only.

A/N: I reference the books On Killing and On Combat by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman; the article Psychological Effects of Combat in the Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict, Academic Press, 2000; and the website Joyful Heart Foundation throughout this story.

This story is, in many ways, the opposite tone of To be Proud, but I am no less excited to share it with you. This story is dark in several places, but I have used the darkness deliberately with the explicit goal of sharing a new perspective on Steph's experiences from canon and framing it within experiences of my research and imagination. I am not taking you down this road without a light at the end of the tunnel; an HEA is promised.

I'm grateful to misty23y for being my Beta on this project. We worked hard on not only editing this story but also to make sure I am giving you a different experience than Drive. Thank you for reading, and I look forward to reading your comments. Each one means the world to me.


Chapter 1

Stephanie's POV

BANG! The gun fires and I quickly scramble back, dropping the smoking metal beside me. Farro's eyes widen in shock as he crumples to the floor. The six foot one, two hundred and fifteen pounds of unkempt, pushing fifty Caucasian male is reduced to nothing by a one-inch piece of metal. Blood pools underneath him and spreads across his dirty wife beater. "You shot me," he says in disbelief, placing his right hand over his heart and pulling his fingers back again. He stares at his digits, stained red, before shifting his condemning gaze to me.

"You killed me, bitch, all because you wouldn't spread your legs like a good girl. Do you see that picture on the fridge? That's my wife, Stella, and my daughter, Amber. Are you going to tell them you're the reason I'm dead? That you stood there and did nothing as you watched me die?" he coughs and spits up blood. "Or are you going to slither away knowing you're a killer who destroyed a family?" he says, lacing as much venom as he can in his fading words.

Farro's blood splattered across my body, and I feel each drop seeping into my soul like a poison. I stand, frozen, as I watch his chest slowly rise and fall. The part of me that's still good considers attempting first aid, but the greater, selfish part of me knows that if he is pretending to be in worse condition than he is and I compromise my safer ground, he may kill me. I take rapid, shallow breaths, and my vision tunnels to his form.

"You're. A. Murderer," Farro spits out between gasps and coughs. "Live with that," he whispers, and I watch as his eyes lock onto the afterlife.

All tension leaves his muscles, and as his body sags into the carpet, I realize with an odd sense of detachment that his chest is no longer moving. I stand and, while my heart refuses to slow its thunderous beating, I feel a sense of nothingness settle over me.

I slowly pull my phone out of my back pocket and dial Morelli's number.

"Hello," a woman answers between giggles.

"Terry, I told you not to do that. You're going to get me in trouble," I hear Morelli say in the background before groaning. I keep the phone held to my ear in perverse curiosity.

I hear a soft plop as I assume Terry dropped the phone on a pillow followed by loud slurping sounds. It takes a second for the noise to register, and when it does, I pull the phone back to stare at the screen in detached realization. Terry Gillman is giving my boyfriend a blow job on speaker. I end the call and dial Eddie Costanza.

"Hey Steph, what's up?" he answers, upbeat as always.

"I have a dead FTA," I reply before giving him the address.

"Shit, Steph," Eddie says seriously. "Are you okay?"

"Fine," I reply. "I'll be waiting. I'm unarmed." I hang up without waiting for a reply.

I remain in place as I stare unblinkingly at Farro's corpse. There's a ringing in my ears, and I realize I need the bathroom immediately. I dash through the halls and launch myself at a toilet to relieve myself as my body threatens rebellion. I stand, flush, and stare at myself in the toothpaste splattered medicine cabinet mirror. The blood covers my skin and shirt like a terminal rash. I should be upset, I think. I should be crying. I should be, something.

My phone rings and I answer it reflexively.

"Cupcake, what's this I hear about a dead FTA?" Morelli yells.

"Good multi-tasking," I reply calmly.

"What are you talking about, Cupcake? Did you kill someone?" Morelli retorts indignantly.

"Terry's head can't be that good if you are working at the same time," I continue in the same tone. Morelli is silent.

"Keep her. Don't call me again," I finish dismissively, disconnecting. Morelli immediately tries to call back, and I block the number.

I wander listlessly into the kitchen, and the photo on the fridge draws me like a magnet. The daughter is the spitting image of her fair-skinned, dark-haired, red-lipped mother. It's a sunny day, and they are both smiling at something beyond the camera.

I turn slowly when the door bursts open. I blink several times before recognizing the large imposing man sweeping the room with his gun drawn as Tank. Lester is behind him, and he quickly comes up beside me.

"Beautiful, are you okay? What happened?" he asks, looking me over. I keep my eyes on Tank as he checks for a pulse on the FTA. Tank locks eyes with Lester with a slight shake of his head and stands again. Tank says something in his headset, but I only see his lips move. The ringing in my ears is growing louder, and I decide it must be from the proximity of the gunshot.

Lester places his hand on my shoulder, and I take an instinctive step back, narrowing my eyes. "Beautiful," he says. "Stephanie." His voice is authoritative, and it captures my attention. I shake my head once as though to clear the cobwebs, grateful the ringing decreases slightly.

"I'm fine. We fought, and the gun accidentally fired," I say directly.

Lester looks as though he is about to ask another question when Eddie walks through the door. "Stephanie, holy shit! What happened?" he exclaims, looking between Farro's body, me, Tank, and Lester.

"This is Eric Farro. He's FTA, and I have the papers to bring him in. He answered the door but refused to come with me to the station. I tasered him, and I was in the process of handcuffing him when he physically assaulted me. He attempted sexual assault, and when I fought him off, he grabbed that handgun from that table," I state in a straightforward tone, pointing around the room. "I believe Farro was about to shoot me when he dropped the gun due to after-effects of the taser. We fought for the gun, and the weapon fired while we were doing so. He bled out quickly. I called you."

"Fuck," Lester swears under his breath, and Eddie looks at me compassionately.

"Okay, Steph. I am going to escort you away from the crime scene. There's a bus downstairs to medically evaluate you. Once the paramedics clear you, I'll need you to give your statement again," Eddie says, shifting to full cop mode.

I nod once and follow him with Tank and Lester behind me. Farro lived on the third floor of an apartment building a block off of State Street that makes my place look like the Ritz. We are on the second-floor stair landing when Morelli catches up to us.

"Holy hell, Stephanie. You have some nerve hanging up on me and refusing to answer my calls after you kill someone. There are not enough antacids in all of Trenton for me to deal with this today! Why do you keep getting yourself into these situations? You need to leave this stuff for the professionals," he begins ranting, blocking my path down the stairs.

My already elevated heart rate rises even higher, and I've had enough. "Move. Out. Of. My. Way," I say through clenched teeth.

"No! You owe me some answers, Cupcake," Morelli shoots back, moving closer to me.

"I owe you nothing. We are done. Move," I say, vibrating with a need to get out of this situation.

Morelli is about to open his mouth again, and something primal in me reacts first. I slam my famed knee into Morelli's coveted boys, and as he doubles over in pain, I push him with my full strength to the side. I step over his curled and groaning form and catch up with Eddie on the first-floor landing.

"Damn, Beautiful," Lester mumbles from behind me. He attempts to put his hand on my shoulder, but I deflect and take a quick step forward. I want to get as far away from this nightmare as I can, and the only way I'll be able to do that is to follow protocol. I also have no desire to spend the night in jail.

Bobby is standing next to the ambulance and begins to walk towards me as I make my way there with my entourage. I can tell Bobby's about to put his arm around me to guide me to the gurney, but I shoot enough back off daggers out of my eyes that he drops his hand and falls in step beside me.

As we close the short distance to the ambulance, Eddie and Big Dog separate from us to speak off to the side. "Bomber, will you sit on the stretcher inside? It will be a little more private," Bobby suggests, and I have to focus on his words and think about them a moment before I comply. "Right here. Good," Bobby says as I follow the simple instructions. "I'll be right back. I'm going to get a quick status update from Tank and Lester. Would you like the paramedics to begin looking you over, or would you rather wait for me?" Bobby asks.

"Wait," I state. The break will give me a second to try to refocus.

I watch as the Core Team, minus Ranger, engage in a brief but intense discussion. Ranger left two months ago for a mission that could be up to a year, his longest yet. He stopped by my apartment on his way out of town and told me that he was sure that with him going away for so long that I'd finally be happy with Morelli and wished me the best. I thought he was going to leave without so much as a kiss, but as I followed him to the door, he turned and permanently burned the imprint of his lips on mine.

Ranger's sudden departure left me in a quandary. I was going to end things with Morelli the next day, but Ranger's words took root in my head. Why shouldn't I see if Morelli and I could improve our relationship without the ever-present competition and tension that existed between Morelli, Ranger, and myself? For the first couple of weeks, things were great, and I thought I made the right decision. Our relationship felt lighter and more comfortable. That is until it didn't. It wasn't long before Morelli started having longer "working hours" and would suddenly be called away "for a case." In hindsight, the opposite of what I expected happened, and Ranger's departure made Morelli complacent in the management of his sidepiece.

Bobby re-enters the ambulance and crouches in front of me with Eddie and someone from forensics standing at the door. "Okay, Bomber. We're going to check your vitals. Unless you help us identify something that needs immediate medical attention, forensics is going to do gunpowder residue testing and take samples and photographic evidence. Once they are complete, we'll clean you up," Bobby orders, and I nod my head once indicating my compliance.

It's not my first time being tested and swabbed, and I sit through it stoically. I tense every time someone touches me, but I internalize the instinct to fight and wordlessly follow instructions. When the forensics tech reaches for my hand to swab it, I hiss in unexpected pain. I look down and see the hand is swollen with bruising around the index finger and wrist. I had forgotten it hurt.

Bobby, who was hovering nearby, is immediately beside me. "That looks broken. Do you remember what happened?" he asks.

I stare at it a second as flashes of memory fill my vision. "We fought for the gun. I reached it first, but Farro got his hand over mine. We wrestled for control," I state robotically.

I see rather than hear the forensics tech make a comment to Bobby and reach forward to take the tests. Expecting pain this time, I don't flinch as they complete the documentation of my injury.

"Are there any more injuries or physical evidence you know of that we should see?" the tech asks.

I glance over to verify the ambulance doors are closed before reaching across with my body to begin slowly pulling up the side of my shirt.

"I will need your clothes bagged for evidence, ma'am. Here or at the hospital, it doesn't matter to me," the tech chimes in, trying to be helpful. "Probably easier to do it here. I can turn while you put a hospital robe on."

I look between him and Bobby with rising anxiety. "It's okay, Steph. I can help, and with a blanket, we can keep you comfortable. Does that sound okay?" he calmly suggests.

"Fine," I say tensely, wanting nothing more than to get this over with as quickly as possible, and if stripping here meant less time at a hospital, then that's the lesser of two evils.

Bobby pulls down a couple of hospital gowns and a blanket from a compartment and drapes my top before cutting off my shirt and bra. I slide forward on the bed and tentatively place my feet on the floor, thankful the gown is reasonably long. I awkwardly pull down my jeans, thankful no one seems interested in taking my underpants as well, and Bobby helps me remove my sneakers and step out of them. Silently, I sit on the edge of the stretcher and pull the sides of the fabric apart to show the bruising on the sides of my breast and legs from Farro's attack. I hear Bobby sigh before he attempts to encourage me.

"You're doing good, Steph," Bobby says. "This will help collaborate your story faster so that you don't end up with charges against you." I barely register his words as I begin to shake.

The tech looks at his checklist, camera, and evidence bags again. "I've got everything I need. I'll give a verbal report to whoever is running the scene and take the rest back to the station," he said, before hopping out of the ambulance.

A paramedic quickly replaces the technician, and he and Bobby begin working me over. Bobby does another round of vitals, and after recording my blood pressure and pulse pulls another blanket down and wraps it around me. "Steph, I need you to try to calm down for me. Your pulse is around 175, and your BP is elevated," he says, crouching down to look at on eye level. "You're safe. I'm here, and Tank and Lester are right outside. Try to focus on your breathing with long, slow breaths in your nose and out of your mouth," he instructs. "Otherwise, you need to get that wrist x-rayed and evaluated by an orthopedic specialist, you need a couple of stitches on your temple, and I'd like to get a CT scan to rule out a concussion based on your medical history. I'm going to step out and make sure PD doesn't need anything else before transport," he finishes, and I continue staring at the door.

A few minutes later Bobby returns with Eddie. "Hey Steph, we've completed our initial walkthrough of the crime scene, and so far, everything corroborates your initial statement. It looks like a case of self-defense. I need to take your statement one more time, but the Chief says that unless something new comes up, we aren't going to arrest you for anything. Do you want to do that here and be done with it or wait until later?" Eddie says kindly.

"How long will it take?" I ask. I'm not hurting badly yet, but I'm sure the pain is coming.

"Under ten minutes? Based on what you said initially and what we've gathered in terms of evidence, this should be simple. I can call you back into the station if any follow up is needed," Eddie replies.

"Fine," I state and quickly repeat my previous statement.

Eddie asks a couple of clarifying questions and finishes as quickly as promised. "Thanks, Steph. I'll be in touch. Give me two minutes to report back to the Chief, and you should be free to go. I hope you heal quickly," he says before departing.

Tank enters in Eddie's wake, filling the small space. He looks at me a long second. "Are you okay?" he asks.

"Fine," I reply.

"Why didn't you call us, Little Girl?" he says quietly.

I'm immediately back in the apartment. "Don't call me Little Girl," I hiss, drawing my body into itself. Tank rocks backward.

"Steph?" he questions, looking confused.

"I thought I had it, or I wouldn't have gone in. If I called you for every FTA, I'd never make enough money to eat and pay rent after everyone got their cut. I realize I'm not as badass as you, but I didn't plan on fucking up your afternoon. At least I'm not the one who's dead," I exclaim with greater force than I expected.

Tank looks hurt for a split second before the blank face slams down. Suddenly Bobby leaps up and clears an alarm on the monitor. "Stephanie, I need you to calm down," he says in a voice so kind it only ramps me up father.

"I'm doing the best I can!" I shout, and my vision narrows. "I just want to get the fuck out of here!" I stand, suddenly feeling incredibly claustrophobic in the small space. I keep my eyes on the door, and it's the only thing I see. As I try to reach it, my subconscious registers a wall in my way. The only sound I hear is the ringing in my ears as I push, claw, climb, and do everything I can to get to the exit. My fingertips clutch the door handle before my world goes black.